Kay – As an Applied Improvisation coach, how do you see the art of Improv enhancing executives’ impact on audiences?
First, let me explain what improvisation (or “improv”) is, for anyone who might not be familiar with it. It’s a form of theatre in which a team of players create scenes together on the spot, without a script, inspired by unpredictable suggestions from the audience. It’s not just random chaos – there are actually some underlying principles and a mindset that guide what the performers do.
What does that have to do with business, leadership, teamwork and sales? A lot! Like improv, life and business don’t come with a script, and they depend on co-operation, good communication skills, emotional intelligence, and getting comfortable with change and uncertainty. So the concept of “Applied Improvisation” is about applying the improv principles and mindset in life and business (no acting or improv experience required).
I, and other Applied Improvisation facilitators around the world, have found that when people learn to approach life and business with an improv mindset, they build their skills in leadership, teamwork, communication, creativity, emotional intelligence, and handling the VUCA challenges they’re facing. Those are the “soft skills” that companies and organizations need these days.
So those skills help executives and their teams to generate creative ideas about sales and marketing strategies; develop new products and services; pitch to potential investors; speak with potential clients; negotiate deals; handle complaints from customers; inspire colleagues and customers about their company’s mission, goals and values; nurture psychological safety; give and receive feedback; respond to business crises; speak confidently at conferences; spot out-of-left-field business opportunities…
Oh, and bringing an improv mindset to life and work is fun! And that’s good for people’s physical and mental health.
Learning from Improv – What is the most important element of communicating?
We might think that communication is all about delivering a message. But I believe the most important element of communication, and of leadership, is listening – how do you receive a message? Are you willing to listen to and be curious about other people’s ideas without immediately saying “Yes, but…” or “No!”?
This is a crucial skill, in improv and in life, precisely because we don’t have a script. We have to listen very carefully to what other people say and then build on that, instead of going into a situation with a pre-conceived idea about what’s going to happen. It’s about letting go of control, trusting and respecting each other, sensing the true message behind someone’s words, tone of voice and body language, and being willing to step boldly into the unknown. And that kind of listening creates a safe, brave space for people to be vulnerable and share their ideas, concerns, feelings, hopes and dreams.
So an Applied Improvisation workshop is an opportunity for individuals and teams to practice those skills in a safe, low-risk environment.
What is one Improv exercise that teams can use to bond them closer, especially in these “virtual” times?
The number-one principle of improv is “Yes, and”. The “Yes” means a player accepts what their scene partner says or does, and the “and” means the player then builds on or adds to it, so that their partner then has something to respond to. In improv and in life and work offstage, “Yes” does not necessarily mean you like or agree with someone’s idea or that you’re committing to implementing it; it means you’re at least open to giving it some air and exploring the possibilities that it opens up. You don’t have to literally say “Yes, and”, but approaching situations with a “Yes, and” mindset definitely helps to create a more creative, harmonious and engaged team.
(Yes, I know that sometimes in life and business you have to say no, but if that’s your habitual response to people’s ideas, you might not be getting the best possible results for yourself, your team-members, your customers, your organization and your community.)
To give people an experience of exercising their “Yes, and” muscle and to help them bond, here’s a simple improv activity that can be done in pairs or in groups or 5 or 6 people, in real life or online.
Ask for a suggestion of where the people will be going on their next holiday together (let’s pretend Covid doesn’t exist). One person starts with “I think we should go to [the place that was suggested].” Then everyone takes turns in order around the group, starting every turn by saying “No”, briefly explaining why that suggestion won’t work, and proposing a different place. They’re making it up on the spot, and keeping each sentence short.
Example: Player 1: I think we should go to Mexico. Player 2: No, I’m allergic to guacamole. Let’s go to Vietnam.
How did that feel? Did they finally agree on where to go?
A different person starts with the same first sentence. Then everyone takes turns in order around the group, starting every turn by saying “Yes, and…”, and then building on or being inspired by the previous person’s offer.
Example: Player 1: I think we should go to Australia. Player 2: Yes, and we can cuddle a koala.
How did that feel? For a more business-related scenario, the prompt could be about the company’s next marketing campaign. One person starts by saying “For our next marketing campaign, let’s … / how about we…? / I think we should…”
Kay Ross performs improv with an English-language team in Hong Kong, and is an Applied Improvisation facilitator, designing and leading tailor-made experiential workshops for companies and organizations in a wide variety of industries. She also has a background in marketing, as a copywriter, an editor and a trainer.